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Multicasting: the practical engine that’s driving public TV’s digital transition

Overview: What is it, and how many channels does it add to public TV?

Repeats: The rationalists' preference for additional channels

Education: An offer that fits the mission and public policy

Online access: How Texas stations aim to bring new media to the outback

Local and regional programs: Hopes for coverage that's often squeezed out of public TV today

Specialized genres: Replicating the model that works for cable

Option 1: Repeats

Battle cry of rationalists: play it again!

Adapted from Current, April 22, 2002

Repeating your best programs makes the most of the broadcast hour as well as the production dollar, according to advocates for multicast encore channels.

Programmers in Boston and Washington are planning "best of" channels that give viewers additional chances to stumble over strong programs, and the crew in Milwaukee is already airing time-shifting channels that simply rebroadcast their main channels on a three-hour delay.

Jon Abbott, TV manager at WGBH, preaches the efficiency of repeats on sister channels 2 and 44, where a program may appear as many as eight times without payment for additional broadcast rights. By the time they were through with Jazz, 38 percent of Boston had seen it.

"It's been clearly demonstrated to us that if someone isn't finding their passion on the primary public television channel, all the more reason to consciously make that very next offer something else from public television," Abbott says.

HBO schedules repeats with masterful effect, playing The Sopranos on as many as six channels on digital cable, he says.

Though a multicast channel could have a focus—just as WGBH's analog Channel 44 has a tendency toward history, science, the arts and independent films—Abbott warns against rigid categories for narrowcasting.

He scorns the notion of a channel devoted rigidly to public affairs, asking, "Do you have dry toast for breakfast every morning?"

WETA, too, is tentatively planning a best-of channel. The working title is WETA Prime for a channel that would draw the best reruns from the primetime schedule, counterprogrammed to serve different audiences than the programs on the analog channel at the same time, says Joe Bruns, chief operating officer. The new stream could add NewsHour at 6 p.m. and again the next morning, for instance.

Or WETA Prime could carry Monday's Masterpiece Theatre three times on the following Sunday at no additional cost for broadcast rights, says Michael Dietz, WETA's v.p. of television.

Milwaukee PTV has been multicasting its repeat streams for two years already, says General Manager Ellis Bromberg, and they have a real audience because, thanks to the national agreement between public TV and Time Warner Cable, the local Time Warner systems carry the channels. "Time-shifting is perfectly fine to cable companies," says Bromberg. "They do it all the time with movies. When we first proposed it, they said, 'That's terrific!'"

—Steve Behrens

To Current's home page
Earlier article: In a commentary for Current, longtime public TV programmer Jane Sheridan looks at the potential of repeats.
Outside link: In Boston, WGBH already uses its second channel, 44, much the way some stations would use a repeats channel for DTV multicasting.

Web page posted Aug. 6, 2002
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Copyright 2002